Through the voice of a former Nazi officer, 'The Kindly Ones' re-creates the horrors of the war
This immense novel, first published in France in 2006, has ignited fierce debates wherever it has appeared (including Germany and Israel), and the United States should prove no exception. You may close "The Kindly Ones" in revulsion after the first 100 pages or refuse even to open it once you know what it's about. Or, if you're like me, you will read it to the end with a mixture of fascination and disgust toward its narrator, and admiration for the author who created him.
Jonathan Littell, born in New York in 1967 (son of American thriller writer Robert Littell), grew up in France, was educated at Yale, and spent several years working for nonprofits in hot spots like Chechnya and Bosnia before settling in Barcelona. He had published almost nothing before this book. Winner of two major literary prizes, including the prestigious Prix Goncourt, the novel sold more than half a million copies within a few months of publication, and elicited long articles by some of France's most distinguished critics and historians.
Why all the fuss? Mainly because this novel, which gives us a comprehensive and historically accurate account of the Nazi genocide of the Jews, starting in June 1941 on the Eastern Front and ending with the January 1945 death marches from Auschwitz, is narrated by a former SS officer who witnessed it all. Critics have pointed out that this ubiquity makes the narrator a kind of Forrest Gump, highly implausible by realistic standards. The important questions, I believe, are what kind of point of view and what kind of voice does Littell's Maximilien Aue represent, and how are we to respond to him as readers?
Littell's achievement is that the answers to this question are complicated. From one angle, Aue appears as a loathsome human being who commits not only crimes demanded of him by commanders but also some purely "private" ones such as murder and matricide; from another angle, he appears as a reliable witness who offers a pitiless gaze on the Nazi machinery of destruction. The novel's plot is loosely based on "The Oresteia," in which Orestes kills his mother, Clytemnestra, then is pursued by the Furies. In the Greek trilogy those fierce avengers are placated at the end and renamed the Eumenides, the Kindly Ones, even as Orestes goes scot free. In Littell's novel too, Aue goes unpunished (he ends his days as the director of a lace factory in northern France), but it's less clear that the Furies have let him go: In many ways he is a haunted man, and the novel's last sentence suggests that the Kindly Ones have clung to him all these years. Paradoxically, he has no memory of his matricide, and he is blind about other private matters as well.
About history, by contrast, he is clearsighted. Writing his memoirs many years after the war, Aue begins with a provocation to readers: "Oh my human brothers, let me tell you how it happened." The "it," the story he will go on to tell at great length, is nothing less than the story of Germany in World War II, with all its madness and megalomania and occasional moments of grotesque humor.
It is this double status, at once "insider" participant and "outsider" analyst, that makes the fictional Aue fascinating and problematic. Some critics blame Littell for having created a character whom they view as historically implausible: a Nazi with such a clear-eyed historical vision. But Littell has explained in interviews that he never intended Aue to be a realistic character. Aue's insider/outsider status is essential to Littell's project, which is to remain very close to the historical record (he did years of research for the book, and even negative critics have recognized the documentary accuracy of his work) and at the same time to plumb some of its most mysterious depths - first among these being the question of motivation. Why did the perpetrators of the most heinous crimes against humanity do what they did, especially if they were thoughtful, intelligent men, as many SS officers were? It is not enough, Littell has stated, to argue that the Nazis killed Jews because they were anti-Semitic; nor, in fact, is any single explanation adequate. In one of the tour-de-force passages in the novel, Aue reflects on a question that historians have pondered: Why did the Nazis insist on deporting the Jews of Hungary, very late in the war, when they could have used their dwindling resources more effectively in resisting the Russian advance? He concludes that "even if, objectively, there was no doubt about the final aim [to kill all the Jews in Europe], it wasn't with this aim in mind that most of the participants were working." Instead, each had some narrow, personal, or professionally circumscribed reason. This can be seen as a restatement of Hannah Arendt's famous thesis about the banality of evil, but it is given a whole new life under Aue's (and Littell's) pen. Charlotte Mandell's translation is excellent, corresponding to Littell's colloquial French.
The historical events of the Holocaust take up more than half of the book, the rest being devoted to other aspects of the war such as the German defeat at Stalingrad, the nightmarish final days of the war in Berlin, and Aue's private story (which involves passive homosexuality and an incestuous love for his twin sister). The link between Aue's private, increasingly delirious sexual fantasies and aberrant behavior and the public madness of the war is never explicitly developed, just as the link between the "Oresteia" plot and the Nazi war machine is left unstated. If Littell wanted to leave the reader with unresolved questions that will continue to haunt us, he has succeeded brilliantly.
Susan Rubin Suleiman, a professor of French and comparative literature at Harvard, is the author of "Crises of Memory and the Second World War," among other books.